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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Stout Research Centre, castaways, and the CLL/NZSA grant

How time flies when you are working hard and having fun

Early this year, I applied for a Copyright Licensing Limited/New Zealand Society of Authors grant, which would give me two months in the cherished collegial atmosphere of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University.  To my surprise and pleasure, I won the award, and commenced my short tenure in the first week of October.
And lo, I cleared up my desk on Friday.  The two months was over.

I applied for the grant to finish going through the fifty years of despatches from United States consuls in New Zealand, 1838-1888, which I printed off during various years at the Stout Centre, commencing with my John David Stout Fellowship year in 2001. This research had already led to a book (In the Wake of Madness, published by Algonquin in the USA and HarperCollins in New Zealand), and several papers, including "Salem Traders in New Zealand", which was published in the Journal of New Zealand Studies. However, that had only taken me up to 1855, so a great deal that promised to be interesting beckoned.

It was a pleasurable time, too.  The Centre is ably and lovingly run by Lydia Wevers, the Director, and Louise Grenside, the administrator.  The welcome was all one could wish for.  The wonderful collegial atmosphere never fails to surprise me. The SRC is a perfect environment for research and writing.

I began by going through the printed despatches from 1855 onward, and found three very promising topics. 
IThe first is the story of a Connecticut schooner that arrived in Lyttelton in December 1883 with only the captain and the steward on board. With just one man at the helm, and the other to work the ropes, they had sailed the large vessel through one of the most terrifying seas in the world.  They had headed north through the southern ocean from Campbell Island, where the captain had lost both his boats, with their crews, twelve men in all. The two boats had gone about the coast, looking for seals, and never returned. After waiting three days in Perseverance Harbour, and searching for another 24 hours, he had given them up, and made the desperate two-handed voyage to New Zealand.

Back in the icy waters of the sub-Antarctic, six men were struggling desperately for survival, against gigantic odds.  Without food, and without water, they labored for days at their oars, buoyed by their only hope -- that if they managed to reach the island, the schooner would be waiting for them there. They pictured how delighted the captain would be to see them return.

Instead, he was in Lyttelton, lauded by all for his amazing feat of seamanship.  However, James Drummond Macpherson, the President of the Christchurch Chamber of Commerce, thought the captain had given up too early, and commenced a campaign to persuade William Rolleston (who was standing in for Harry Atkinson, the Premier) to send a government steamer on a search-and-rescue mission. 

Newspaper reports of the time gave me a detailed picture of his lobbying and the outcome, and the consular despatches continued the story of the public outcry and political fall-out after the six men were discovered cowering, ill and starving, in a castaway hut.

It's a fitting sequel to my other castaway story, Island of the Lost.   And it is a testament to the ideal writing environment that the Stout Research Centre provides that to date I have written 60,000 words of this new book, and the end of the first good draft is in sight.

More about it later ...

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